Not many UK voters will have noticed it, but one of the most interesting aspects of the European elections which will take place on 22nd-25th May is the fact that – for the first time in history – the main political groups of the European Parliament have agreed to propose common candidates to the Presidency of the European Commission. The usual procedure has in the past seen heads of member states’ governments agree on a common candidate ‘behind closed doors’, before this was presented to the European Parliament for rubber-stamping.
But “this time is different,” has argued a PR campaign launched by the Parliament ahead of the elections.
Not all the political groups have chosen a spitzenkandidat–the European Conservatives and Reformists led by the Tories have chosen not to. But, the Socialists (S&D), Liberals (ALDE), Greens, the European Left (EL) and the European Conservatives (EPP) have all selected their candidates to replace José Manuel Barroso as President of the Commission. With the Presidency widely expected to be a two-horse race between EPP and S&D, a few televised debates have been scheduled to take place in the run-up to the election, including some face-to-face encounters between the socialist Martin Schulz, current President of the European Parliament, and conservative Jean-Claude Juncker, former long-standing Prime Minister of Luxembourg and President of the Eurogroup for eight years.
It is fair to say that the debates have not exactly generated enthusiasm so far, with low ratings and some broadcasters – including the BBC – deciding not to air them on live television. While the explanation for the lack of interest among the general public has perhaps more to do with the way in which the political debate is linked to a country’s national borders, it is fair to say that the attitude of most heads of governments has not exactly been helpful. Indeed, since the idea of a Presidential candidate was first floated, the Council has always shown skepticism, and understandably so since the move has also to be seen in the context of the battle for power between the institutions. With a Commission President directly linked to the results of the election, the Parliament would clearly see its influence boosted vis-à-vis the Council.
It would of course be difficult for the Council to explicitly oppose a move which goes some way towards addressing the EU ‘democratic deficit’, but in private (and not-so-in-private) powerful heads of government such as François Hollande and especially, Angela Merkel have been trying to find a workable solution which would allow them to have ‘their’ candidate replacing Barroso next autumn. This would involve a tight result to the election, with a surge in populist and eurosceptics, meaning that only a grand coalition between the centre-right and centre-left would constitute a workable solution. But of course, neither of these groups would allow such a coalition to be led by the other group’s candidate, and here it is where the ‘dark horse’ of the Council would come into play. A few names have already been mentioned in this context, such Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen (EPP), International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde (EPP) and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt (PES).
It will be interesting to see how it plays out, but it might not be pretty for European democracy.